The Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor

It was an age where women couldn’t vote, non-whites rarely went to school, and the American government said Native Americans weren’t citizens. The odds were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. Some of her own people rejected her learning and caregiving. But she persisted. She earned a degree in medicine and worked tirelessly to improve her tribe’s health and welfare. Read about the amazing first Native American woman doctor and her people.

old black and white photo of the Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor, Susan LaFlesche Pinotte
Susan LaFlesche, Public Domain

Adapt to Survive

Omaha Chief Big Elk visited Washington D.C. in 1837. There he saw a coming flood that would wipe out his people. He warned them they needed to adapt to survive.

He chose a man with a similar vision to succeed him as chief of the Omaha Tribe. Joseph La Flesche, Susan’s father, was of French and Indian descent.

Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes) was one of the seven Omaha chiefs who signed treaties ceding over 90% of the tribe’s land to the U.S. government in 1854.

Chief LaFlesche made a bold push for assimilation. But not everyone in the tribe wanted to assimilate. The tribe split into two parties. 

It is either civilization or extermination.

Chief LaFlesche

The Young Men’s Party built log cabins rather than teepees, laid out roads, and individual farming parcels.

The Chief’s Party remained loyal to traditional ways and medicine men and wouldn’t budge. They called the village of log cabins, “The Village of the Make-Believe White Men.”

Early Life

On June 17, 1865, Susan was born the youngest of three daughters to Chief LaFlesche and his wife Mary, (One Woman).

image with old photographs of Susan's parents. Joseph is in a suit coat white shirt and tie. Mary has looped braids on each side of her head and  is wearing a high necked dress with a cloak or blanket around her shoulders.
Public Domain

She grew up in a log cabin in the Village of the Make-Believe White Men. Her parents taught her native traditions and heritage. But they refused a tribal name and tribal markings for her.

At eight, Susan stayed at the bedside of an elderly woman in agonizing pain. They sent a messenger for the white agency doctor four times. Each time the doctor promised he’d come soon, but he never did. The woman died. It was an episode that affected Susan for the rest of her life.

“Do you always want to be simply called those Indians, or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?”

Chief Joseph La Flesche

Susan attended the Mission School on the Omaha Reservation until she was fourteen.

Then she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. At seventeen, she returned home and taught at the Quaker Mission School for two years. While working there she met and cared for the ethnologist, Alice Fletcher. Fletcher encouraged her to go back east and get a medical degree.

Higher Education

And Susan did. In 1884, she enrolled at the Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first and finest schools of higher education for non-white students. The resident physician there, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Waldon encouraged Susan to apply to WMCP. Alice Fletcher helped Susan secure scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the Women’s National Indian Association.

We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization. The white people have reached a high standard of civilization, but how many years has it taken them? We are only beginning; so do not try to put us down, but help us to climb higher. Give us a chance.

Susan La Flesche, Hampton graduation speech

Susan finished WMCP’s three year program in two years. She graduated at the top of her class of thirty-six people. After a year’s internship in Philadelphia, she returned home.

In 1889, she was 24. She could not vote and as an Indian, she could not call herself a citizen but she was a doctor. 

Dr. Susan

black and white portrait of Dr. Susan
Dr, Suan LaFlasche Picotte Public Domain

Susan served as one of the reservation physicians. It was rare to be a Native American and a doctor. Susan was the first Native American Woman to hold the position.

She opened her office in the government boarding school. Tribe members filed in. So many insisted on seeing only Dr. Susan that the white male doctor quit. That made Susan the only physician for more than 1,300 people on a reservation stretching over 450 square miles. She became their doctor, their translator, lawyer, accountant, priest, and political liaison.

Susan made $500 per year and had to buy her own supplies when the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran out. She made another $250 per year from the Women’s National Indian Association for her work as a medical missionary.

At first she made house calls on foot, later on horseback, and still later in her buggy. She often encounter Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and her learning. Some rejected her care simply because of tensions created by her father.

For years this amazing Native American woman doctor fought epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and diphtheria. She got the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales within towns inside the reservation. She taught proper hygiene and encouraged the use of screen doors to keep out disease carrying flies. And she discouraged communal drinking cups, and the mescal used in religious ceremonies.

In poor health, she resigned in 1893 to recover and to care for her sick mother.


In 1894, Susan married Henry Picotte, a Yankton Sioux who worked with Wild West Shows. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska where she set up a private practice. She served both white and non-white patients.

She had two sons whom she occasionally took with her on house calls.

My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Her husband became an alcoholic and died of tuberculosis in 1905. 

After her husband’s death, Susan and her sons moved to Walthil. There she resumed her efforts to improve the health and conditions of her people.


In 1906 she led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the reservation.

Susan returned to Washington D.C. in 1910 to present an argument to the Office of Indian Affairs. She argued that most of the Omaha tribesmen could manage their own affairs but the Indian Office had stifled them to the point they could not protect themselves from fraud. 

She continued to work with the tribe. Her dream was to build the first hospital on the reservation not funded by the government. And in 1913, that hospital opened its doors.

Death and Legacy

Susan La Flesche Picotte passed away on September 18, 1915.

Image of the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center Museum in Nebraska, site of the hospital the amazing first Native American Woman Doctor opened
Public Domain

After her death, they renamed the hospital Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. It served patients for an additional thirty years, then closed its doors. It is now a museum and became a national historic landmark in 1993. They hold an annual festival there every year in her memory.

Final Words

The society and government and conditions were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. A strong woman, she became a doctor anyway. What amazing strength she had to spend her lifetime relentlessly fighting for better health and living conditions for her people. She was the Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor.

How Many Indigenous People Do You Think America Has?

We’re coming up on Indigenous Peoples Day here in the States. It’s a day to honor the people who were in America long before Columbus crossed the ocean. But did you learn about these people in school? Or did you learn what you know on cowboy shows? The shows that told you about the Souix and the Apache omitted many more tribes. How many indigenous people do you think America has today?

Left Hand Bear Chief Oglaha Souix

How Many Indigenous People?

There are over five million Native Americans in the United States today. (1.6% of the total population) Approximately 78% of Native Americans live outside reservations.

As of February 19, 2020, 574 Indian tribes were legally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the United States.

But federally recognized tribes do not include all Native Americans.

map of the U.S. with Indian territories marked. How many indigenous people do you think America has--if you look at this map you'd get an idea that once there were many, many more.
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The Definitions

We often use the terms Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous American synonymously. Yet, there are federal definitions that are inclusive and exclusive.

In the 2010 census the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) used this definition: “American Indian or Alaska Native” refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. The American Indian and Alaska Native population includes people who marked the “American Indian or Alaska Native” checkbox or reported entries such as Navajo, Blackfeet, Inupiat, Yup’ik, or Central American Indian groups or South American Indian groups.

The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010 2010 Census Briefs 

That definition excludes Hawaiian Natives,  Samoans, and Chamorros. It also excludes some Alaskan natives. And it excludes any native not federally recognized.

The Federally Recognized Native Americans

According to the BIA a federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The government assigns federally recognized tribes as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and may receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States.

The process for becoming a federally recognized tribe is long, tedious, and expensive. They must submit detailed petitions to the  Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) Office of Federal Acknowledgment. The process commonly takes a decade or more. “The Shinnecock Indian Nation formally petitioned for recognition in 1978 and was recognized 32 years later, in 2010.”

Termination of Recognition

And still we may not have an accurate count of Native Americans. 

Between 1953 and 1964, the government terminated recognition of more than 100 tribes and bands as sovereign dependent nations. These actions affected more than 12,000 Native Americans or 3% of the total Native American population.,the%20total%20Native%20American%20population.

The number of not-yet-recognized tribes and bands is unknown. As mentioned earlier, it does not include Hawaiian natives and some Alaskans. Nor are natives of territories of the United States included.

native alaskan woman wearing a parka

A Brief History

The Second Continental Congress created a trio of Indian-related agencies in 1775. They appointed commissioners, including Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry, to negotiate treaties with Native Americans. The treaties detailed Native American neutrality during the American Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Congress placed agencies created to handle Indian-related issues under the War Department for a while. The duty of the Office of Indian Trade (1806–1822) was to maintain the fur trade. When the fur trade “factory” ended, so did the Office of Indian Trade.

Secretary of War John C. Calhoun formed the Bureau of Indian Affairs on March 11, 1824. He created the agency as a division within his department, without authorization from Congress.

Today the BIA an agency of the Department of Interior. After abuses and mismanagement within the agency, many Native Americans developed a deep distrust of the BIA. The agency’s role today is to move away from the supervisory role of its past to a more advisory role. Learn more about the BIA.

Other Bits of History

Native Americans weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. 

The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 applies to the Indian tribes of the United States and makes many but not all the guarantees of the Bill of Rights applicable within the federally recognized tribes. 

Know Your Country’s History

First, it’s important to know our country’s history. The history of how our government treated Native Americans is appalling. And that isn’t referring only to the Trail of Tears.

From the Indian Removal Act to states forcibly taking children from their parents and living conditions on the reservations, to inadequate water supplies and medical care during the pandemic our Native Americans have been poorly treated by our government—by us.

Deeper Understanding

image of Hawaiians demonstrating how to make poi
By Lahalele – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As a human being, it’s your duty to try to understand your fellow humans. Learn about other people, their culture, and their history. Don’t pigeonhole a people or culture. Doing so diminishes you far more than it does them.

Learn about individuals like Molly Brant or any of these women.

Grow your capacity for understanding, compassion and empathy. A deeper understanding of at least one culture that is not your own is useful when you encounter unfamiliar cultures. Cultural differences won’t frighten or threaten you. Perhaps you’ll be tolerant. Hopefully, a new understanding will inspire you to make a difference.

Learning about the history of native Americans (or other cultures) is also useful for science fiction authors to understand the clash of cultures and the struggles of one culture being assimilated into another. Using patterns from history, from other cultures, can illustrate a fiction story that is an argument against the mistreatment of one another.

How Many Indigenous People?

It isn’t as simple of a question as it seems. To get at the answer, one must try to understand how the government sees Native Americans. And that is far more complex than this post can cover.

When this post asked, how many indigenous people do you think America has, did you know the answer? Were you surprised by the answer?

Spy, Loyalist, and Diplomat

Next on our list of extraordinary women of history is Molly Brant. Brant was an influential Mohawk woman in the American Revolution. Spy, loyalist, and diplomat, and a clan matron, Brant straddled two worlds. But she kept her native heritage in her speech and dress throughout her entire life.

Map of Iroquois Nations in northeast U.S. shows where Molly lived as a spy loyalist and diplomat

R. A. Nonenmacher / Public domain

Early Life

Brant’s native name was Konwatsi’tsiaienni (also spelled Gonwatsijayenni) which means “someone lends her a flower.“ The daughter of a sachem (chief), she was probably born in Canajoharie, a barricaded long house village on the south bank of the Mohawk river, in about 1736. Her mother was Margaret Sahetagearat Onagsakearat. The man assumed to be her father was Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa. Both of them were Mohawks of the Wolf clan.

The Mohawks

The Mohawks were members of the Iroquois Confederacy (native name: Haudenosaunee Confederacy), a political union of six different Indian nations in the northeast. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society. They passed property and responsibility from mother to daughter. Iroquois women controlled land and wealth and had influence over policy issues. Learn more about the Mohawks.

A Surname

Peter died in the 1740s, leaving Margaret destitute. She had a brief second marriage to a War Chief who was killed in a raid. She married for the third time in September 1753. Most sources say she married Brant Kanagaradunka, a wealthy Mohawk sachem from the Turtle Clan. Molly’ and her brother used their stepfather’s name as their surname.


We know little about Molly’s childhood through her teens. Brought up as an Anglican, she was likely educated in an English mission school. She spoke and wrote English well. 

Love and Politics

As a teenager in 1754, Molly accompanied a delegation of Mohawk elders to Philadelphia. This was probably part of her training to become a clan matron. The elders discussed fraudulent land transactions. 

About this time, Molly met Sir William Johnson, hero of Crown Point in the French and Indian War and superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern colonies. Mohawks respected Johnson for his honest dealing with them and his mastery of their language. Johnson was a successful colonial trader and one of the richest men in the colonies.

Image of Sir William Johnson, Molly's common law husband. There are no known photos of Molly, Spy, Loyalist, and Diplomat
Sir William Johnson,
Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions


Molly became Johnson’s common-law wife. Some records claim there is no record of a marriage. Others claim they were married in a traditional Mohawk ceremony. Molly was about 23 years old. Johnson was 44. Each of them gained something through their marriage. Molly’s prestige among both settlers and her own people grew. Soon she was a clan mother, responsible for the welfare of her clan. Eventually she became the leader of the group of clan mothers. 

Despite being a clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat and the wife of a prestigous war hero, there are no known photographs of Molly at any age. This may a reflection of the societal attitudes of that period. They saw her, a Native American, as inferior.

The couple had at least nine children. Eight of their children, two sons and six daughters, survived. Molly managed his household, which included a cook, a gardener, a secretary, and several slaves. She and Sir William entertained constantly. They entertained many distinguished Native American,  colonial guests, political, military, and businessmen.


Sir William died at the outbreak of hostilities in July 1774. Molly relinquished control of Johnson’s estate to his eldest son and heir from  his previous marriage. She, her children, and four slaves moved back to Canajoharie and her own people.

She lived near her mother and her brother Joseph and ran a store that sold supplies to the villagers. And she became a vital political link between the British and Iroquois Confederacy. Molly provided food and ammunition to the Loyalists and hid them in her house. 


The American Revolution brought an end to the thousand year old Iroquois Confederacy.

The Mohawks sided with King George III. Molly spied on rebel activities from her home in Canahoharie. In October 1777 she warned the British of the approach of an American force. The Patriots discovered she’d sent the Loyalists information about their troop movements. Twice they came in the night to search her home.

She and her children fled to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital. Her people had lost warriors and possessions. Many doubted the wisdom of fighting. Molly reminded them that the King deserved their loyalty because he had tried to protect their land.

Clan Matron

In late 1777, Colonel Butler of Fort Niagara needed Molly’s help. Thousands of homeless Iroquois had been arriving at the fort. Molly and her children moved to Niagara where she lobbied for their welfare and encouraged the Iroquois continue to support the King.

In 1778, the British built a house for her on Carleton Island. After that, they expected her to use her influence over the Mohawk warriors. She used the colonial administration to increase her own political power and to promote the interests of her people, and they used her as an instrument of political control. Throughout the war, she steadied the warriors, boost their morale, and strengthen their loyalty to the King.

The winter of 1779-1780 was one of the most severe on record. But the war raged on. Native, loyalists, and patriot settlements were attacked and burned.

Thousands more starving and ill Iroquois fled to Fort Niagara.

Broken Promises

After the war, the British reneged on their promise to address native grievances in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British still saw Molly as an indispensable native leader. The Iroquois, who had lost their ancestral homeland, received Canadian land grants and financial compensation. But to her people, Molly was a pariah.

Carleton Island, Molly’s home, was now located on the American side of the new border.

A New Town

In 1783, Molly decided that the site of the old French fort at Cataraqui, near Kingston, Ontario, would be a good place for herself and the other Loyalists to settle.

The government built a large house for her. She also received 100 pounds per year and a supplement of twelve hundred pounds for her property losses in the war. She’d lost more than property in the war. Her eldest child, Peter, died in the fighting.

She and the other loyalists refugees founded the town of Kingston. Spy, Loyalist, and diplomat Molly lived there for the rest of her life. Five of Molly’s daughters married Canadians. Her surviving son, George, worked for the Indian department. She died in 1796 at the age of 60. They buried her in the burial ground of St. George’s Church. A plaque in her memory stands nearby; another is on an interior wall of St. George’s Cathedral.


Molly Brant was an extraordinary woman—a Mohawk clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat. She persuaded most of the Iroquois nations to fight for the King. Poised, persuasive, she was a strong woman. As an American, I had never heard of Molly Brant before. Had you? If you like stories of strong women, you’ll want to read my past posts commemorating women of history, another spy, and an extraordinary doctor who helped the blind see. And read about strong fictional women in my novel, My Soul to Keep.